Colorism, what exactly is it?

by | Jul 11, 2020 | Women's Leadership | 1 comment

Editor’s note: This article was written by Kiandria Cowart, a rising college junior, majoring in Communication and minoring African American Studies. **** Our goal is to be able to become antiracists, but we first have to become aware of all inequalities. Visit to read more blogs on racial inequality.

Colorism is the discrimination toward darker skin people, sometimes within the same racial group and even outside of it. Colorism has been around just as long as racism has been here, and we’ve all heard about it at least once. It can be a quick joke from a friend about our skin or a turned down job application, both fall under the colorism umbrella.

Black people with lighter skin tones are always thought to have it easier or more desirable to society for their lighter skin. Black people with darker skin tones are viewed as less attractive and usually have to work harder for their acceptance, especially darker skinned Black women. This ideology can be traced back into history mostly through cinema and books. Growing up watching them can create a “standard” for ourselves and others by which we judge others. It’s often unconscious and happens very subtly. For instance, watching movies we see the lead actress or actor, too many times lighter than the friend, casted as softer compared to the darker woman who is loud with an aggressive attitude. This woman is normally casted as the tag along, only there to bring the audience a laugh or a witty comeback. Many authors write wonderful books, but the main character is almost always looking in the mirror at straight hair, white skin, and small features, these become the features that love stories are wrapped behind.

Colorism is another form of racism, in which white beauty standards have traditionally been established and affirmed. Today if we look more closely at the entertainment industry, for instance, we see Black women being affirmed like never before. Yet there are still conversations that need to be had and racial barriers broken. A short video clip of Viola Davis, academy award winner and arguably one of the best actors, was trending on social media for her opening up about one of her experiences with racism in Hollywood.

She talks about people viewing her as one of the best, her skills unbeatable! Yet she continues to be labeled as the “The Black Meryl Streep.” She also speaks about not being nearly as high paid as the actual Meryl Streep the only reasoning being her race. Viola Davis was courageous to call out this double standard that has persisted in this industry. Yet, this double standard continues to be another pernicious form in which racists thinking attempts to place and rate Black women’s acceptability according to a continuum of skin tones. The closer to white, the racist thinking goes, the more acceptable; and the further from white, the less acceptable. That is the heart of colorism.

The Guardian posted a short video on their Shades of Black Series about eight Black women talking about colorism, how it affected them and how the media can play a large role in it.

Many of the women in the video say they were taught to love their skin, but while they have – others have not. The gap between lighter/darker skin tones has always been present in many cultural communities, but it seems to hit Black women the worse. Historically, the typical beauty standards were set by whiteness and did not affirm Black women; especially dark-skinned women. That is changing. Think about Rihanna and her makeup line, Fenty Beauty, where darker skin toned women around the world were praising her shade range for the foundation. The diversity of shades were inclusive of the full range of beautiful Black skin tones. But still, color barriers have been broken in the beauty industry for Black women, but unless you are the woman on the cover, you are still viewed as less. In other words, colorism still affects the everyday Black woman.

In the video, (Cat) described how she, being a dark-skinned Black woman, can’t throw her hair up into a “messy bun” to look fashionable or cute, fearing it could represent her as being homeless or unclean. She later says that “the lighter you look and the more polished you are is associated with more money,” all the women agreed. Ironically, colorism puts light tone skin women against darker skin tone women, and what gets ignored, is that racist beliefs undergird the exclusion of both.

For instance, while I have listened to the struggles of a dark skin Black woman, it was interesting to hear the views of lighter skin toned women. In the video, it was said that Black people who are lighter are often asked their commitment to the race because they are not fully Black. We often don’t hear their fight with colorism, but another woman in the video (Avery), opened up about it. She says that even though she is half white she sees herself as black, not acknowledging her white side, but also not being fully accepted into the black community. It leaves her feeling dismissed from her culture and being called “light skin” is offensive to her because, in her eyes, she is only Black.

In the video the women talk about the upcoming change of the image of a Black woman with Jordan Peele’s “Us”, this film was the first of its kind in the category of horror films breaking the “stereotypical black girl” molds. They even speak on Kelly Rowland for her dark skin and music compared to Beyoncé’ in a healthy manner, letting us know that Black women of all color are starting to become recognized on everything that they should. Colorism is still present today, but with more people becoming aware of it perhaps it can become nonexistent and we all can have the same opportunities.

Colorism is still present today, but with more people becoming aware of it perhaps it can become nonexistent and we all can have the same opportunities.

We as Black women are known to be the first responders to tragedy in the black community and around the world but are underappreciated in every race and culture. The hashtag #sayhername, for instance, has been adapted for Black women killed by police violence and other wrongful deaths because they were being overlooked in the tragedy. Black women’s invisibility and silencing is over. Black women have recently started to tell our own stories of the racism and colorism we have experienced and are demanding a change. I hope we all can be the change and help put a stop to colorism. It has a tighter grip among us than we all think.

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Carl E. King Sr.

    Oh so well done. Informative, insightful and interestingly candid. I love the videos, as well. They were a seamless contribution to a thought provoking article. Keep writing, you’ve got a compelling voice.

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